15. Contouring highlighting and blending

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The Girl’s skin looks flawless, with an impeccable transition from light to shadow. Her face is so smooth and well-contoured that it has inspired online makeup tutorial videos.

As we can see from makeup tutorials, achieving flawless beauty takes time. Vermeer must have spent more time on the Girl’s face than on other parts of the composition. How did he achieve the smooth transition from light to shadow from one side of her face to the other?

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The Girl’s face, with contour labelled with arrows


Vermeer avoided defining the outlines of the Girl with precise lines. He applied brown paint at an early stage, then left it visible as a contour line around her face. The paint layers of the background and the paint layer of her face do not touch each other.

The brown contour is made up of earth pigments that contain iron. Iron (the element Fe) can be detected using MA-XRF. The inverted MA-XRF map below shows the distribution of iron as dark areas. The contour around her face is indicated with arrows.

The MA-XRF map for iron also shows where Vermeer used earth pigments to build up the 3-dimensionality of her face. There is more iron in the shadow areas, around her eyes and on her cheek. It would seem that he laid in the light and dark regions at an early stage. In the 17th century, working up a painting in light and dark brown was known as ‘dead colouring’. It would allow Vermeer to see the fall of light and 3-dimensional effects in the composition before he applied any of the final colours. We are investigating how exactly Vermeer started to plan his composition, but this gives us a first glimpse.

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MA-XRF map: inverted natural log of the iron (Fe) map. The iron-rich areas are dark. Image: Annelies van Loon (Mauritshuis/Rijksmuseum), John Delaney (National Gallery of Art)


Seamless transitions from one form to another was an effect Vermeer pushed even further when he painted the Girl’s facial features. They have no clear outlines, but look convincing from a distance. She has no eyebrows. The bridge of her nose has no contour, and the tip is indistinct from her cheek. This blurring and simplification of the facial features are appropriate for the Girl with a Pearl Earring, which was not a portrait of a specific person, but an exotic tronie (character head). 

The MA-XRF map for iron showed us that the strong distinction between light and shadow in her face was established with brown paint. On top, Vermeer worked up the skin tone with midtones and highlights. This detail shows that he applied two (somewhat indistinct) layers of paint on top of the contour line to build up her chin. This makes the contour of her chin look slightly ‘blurry.’

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Soft contour in her chin. The two layers of paint are indicated by yellow arrows. The brown contour line is indicated by a red arrow.


In makeup tutorials, big soft brushes are used to blend the powder and blush on your cheeks. Vermeer might have had a similar strategy for seamlessly blending the Girl’s skin from highlight to shadow. If you look at the Girl’s cheekbone under the microscope, you can see a transition between three different pinkish-brown tones. Vermeer could contour, highlight and blend as well as any of the makeup vloggers online today.

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Seamless transitions in her cheek


  • Costaras, Nicola (1996) ‘A study of the materials and techniques of Johannes Vermeer.’ In: Vermeer Studies: Studies in the History of Art, edited by Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Yale University Press, New Haven/London, pp. 145-167.


  • Observations about the Girl’s skin: Petria Noble (Rijksmuseum / formerly Mauritshuis), Nicola Costaras (Victoria & Albert Museum / formerly Mauritshuis)
  • MA-XRF scanning: Annelies van Loon (Mauritshuis / Rijksmuseum)